Corruption is everywhere

DailyKos blogger BenGoshi points out a very interesting “co-op litigation” web site assembled to help members of electric co-ops network around their respective legal struggles with their cooperatives.

This raises a point that has often been deployed to argue against cooperative-based health care reform: Co-ops are not perfect. They sometimes become big and unresponsive, especially after the founding generation passes on. That is exactly what happened with electric cooperatives, which were mostly organized during the first half of the 20th century.

The thing to remember is that there is no perfect system. Anything we do is going to get messed up, and what we need is a system of accountability through which people can organize to draw the system back toward its ideals.

BenGoshi makes three mistakes that must be corrected.

First, he uses a few anecdotes from one industry to smear an entire form of business that counts nearly half of Americans as members and provides services in all parts of our economy. The co-op litigation site lists only seven open cases, and says,

We don’t represent that these are all the Coops involved in litigation nor do we claim that the assertions in the pleadings are all true and correct. They are, however, a matter of the public record.

For perspective, remember that the country has some 900 electric co-ops serving 42 million members. Perhaps they missed a few, and perhaps some of the cases are without merit. But in any case, this clearing house suggests that fewer than one percent of the nation’s electric co-ops are currently involved in litigation. Ideally, internal democratic appeal structures would prevent the need for litigation, but as I acknowledged at the start, co-ops aren’t perfect.

This brings us to BenGoshi’s second mistake. He compares co-ops to perfection, when he should be comparing them to other real alternatives. I don’t happen to know how many lawsuits are underway against various public and private providers of health care, but I would guess that it is more than 1%. This site lists nine active cases related to Medicare alone.

The third mistake is that whatever the shortcomings of electric co-ops today, they utterly transformed this nation. They provide power to 75 percent of our landmass. Without them, it might have been decades (or forever) before the for-profit providers of electricity would reach the unprofitable and unserved rural areas where 90 percent of Americans lived in the mid-30s. Perhaps the government could have created a national public utility; but then – as now – it was rather preoccupied with staving off economic collapse. The same sort of market failure is underway. In the Depression people lacked electricity, and now they lack health coverage.

Maybe it is true that two generations from now the healthcare co-ops will no longer respond to their members, and will be occasionally taken to court. But that is simply not an argument against using them to address the market failure we currently face. There is lots of room for debate about whether a public plan or a co-op plan will best meet the need, and I hope we can have that debate with less focus on the flaws of each option.

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